On Writing and the Permission to Succeed

March 30, 2016 · 46 comments


Interviewer: You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?

Morrison: No one. What I needed permission to do was succeed at it. 

In a Fall 1993 Paris Review The Art of Fiction interview, Elissa Schappell spoke with Toni Morrison about the writing life. Morrison talked about writing while holding down a full-time job as an editor, writing with small children in the house, writing as a woman, writing as a woman of color, writing about controlling one’s own characters (and not), writing about sex (It’s just not sexy enough.). Morrison talked also about the weapons of the weak: nagging, poison, gossip. And about permission to write, and permission to succeed at it.

I read those words, and had a sticky, squirmy reaction; I felt the way I do when I stand back and witness the horror of someone else’s undoing. It’s a tight kink in the stomach; a hard walnut in the throat. We’ve all been there, haven’t we: we’ve seen the speaker who loses the words. The young actor who blanks out on stage. The musician who forgets the chords. The writer — the food writer; science writer; academic; novelist; it doesn’t matter — blocked by fear. We wince. Who are they to even try, some whisper as we watch them tumble from their place. When it comes our time, we become that person, naked on the stage: doubtful, panicky, assured by the nagging, the poison, the gossipy gremlin chatter over our shoulders, promising that we too, will most certainly, most definitely, fail.


I have just spent the last eighteen months writing my next memoir; for a long while, I worked as a cookbook editor, and I wrote on the train in longhand scribbles, at night in my pajamas, during lunch breaks, on the weekend, until it became clear to me that it I had to step away from one job or the other. After much domestic hand-wringing, the decision was made: I relinquished my position tearfully — I loved it and was good at it; I had long ago been given permission to succeed at being an editor — and went home to my office and closed the door, and wrote. I did what all the books and my writing teachers say you’re supposed to do: I put my ass in my chair every morning at 8:30, and apart from doing yoga a few times a week, walking the dogs, and making myself endless cups of tea, I didn’t move. Some days the work flowed like a river; some days I stared at the page — each word I managed to eek out was like squeezing the back end of an elephant through the eye of a needle — and wept. Alone. And I asked myself the same thing I did while I was writing my first memoir: Do I have the permission to succeed at this? Who am I to tell my stories?

Who are you to not tell them, a writer friend said to me. This writer friend — there are novels, memoirs, a short story collection — tells me that it is ownership, the acceptance of the fact that our stories make us who we are, that is the most complicated and treacherous part of what we do. When that ownership is withheld, we cannot succeed. When other forces say no, that story is not yours, they have not only killed it and its place in your soul; they have killed you.

There are plenty of hurdles in the writing process: distraction, diligence, envy, arrogance, dedication, time, space, money, nagging, poison, gossip. There is the seductive conceit that lures you, like an animal into a trap, towards the belief that your work is spectacular, whatever that means, long before your work is actually even done; there’s the quicksand of self-doubt so immobilizing that you can’t climb out of it, and the more you struggle, the deeper you get sucked in. Writing is balance. Mrs. Ramsay was right: A light here requires a shadow there. The hurdles can make you think you’re better-or-worse than: they can shut you down, prop you up, alter your course, tack your sails. They can result in moments of bliss and terror, calm and panic, hubris and humility, pomposity, paranoia, and paralysis. Often within moments of each other.

These obstacles may hinder permission to write, but they don’t withhold permission to succeed at it. That — the rickety, splintering plank connecting the two, as quavery as a rope bridge over a gorge  — is reserved strictly for shame.

You don’t think shame, says Janna Malamud Smith. You feel covered in its viscose grime. The great hand immerses you whenever you are told you are, or believe yourself to be, violating a basic communal code. 

Truth: A well-known food writer tells me that no matter what she writes — her blog, her cookbooks, her endless articles — she is filled with paralyzing shame. My mother, she tells me, her eyes filling with tears, is the family cook. I was supposed to be the lawyer. When she won her first cookbook award, her mother asked Who do you think you are? Every time the writer sets pen to paper, she is overcome with guilt and anguish. Every recipe — food is sustenance and nurturing, right? — is poisoned with the pong of resentment. I will never be a success, she says to me; it would kill her. 

Truth: An artist in her fifties has devoted her life to creating bright, colorful pencil drawings. It’s a nice hobby, her parents say, but your sister is the real artist. Why didn’t you become a teacher the way we hoped? Forever mired in disappointment — hers; theirs — her images are the same ones she drew when she was eleven, stuck in time and place, like their creator, longing for approval, waiting for permission.

Truth: A writer tells the story of something that happened to her late father almost a century earlier; the story, one of abandonment, is inherently cloaked in shame. Haunted by this myth, which feels almost Greek, this writer and her world view have been molded and shaped by it since she was a child; it forever transforms her sense of safety and self. She writes her story and is expelled by her family — again, the family theme of abandonment — who have kept it a secret for nearly one hundred years. Who do you think you are to write about this, they say?

Shame is a group survival reflex in which the individual is an afterthought….shame’s first goal is to have you confirm to group expectations, Malamud Smith writes. Art-making is a profound way people deal with shame …. One way art transforms [it] is by replacing helplessness with agency. 

Like Morrison, we look beyond ourselves — elsewhere, outside — for the permission to succeed; this external yearning for that which is granted by someone or something else, something outside ourself, is instilled in us from infancy and metabolized like mother’s milk. May I, Can I, Should I. To disregard it is to step into thicket and thorn; to flout shame — to poke it in the eye — is to invite abandonment. As writers and artists, we depend upon the external to feed us after our solitary days at work. To violate that compact feels like sure death; in truth, it is life.

Know your own bone, Dani Shapiro quotes from Thoreau in her Woolfian Still Writing. Gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, gnaw it still. She goes on: In order to do what we love—whether we are woodworkers, legal-aid attorneys, emergency room physicians, or novelists — we must first know ourselves as deeply as we are able. Know your own bone….This self-knowledge can be messy… But it is at the center of our life’s work, this gnawing, this unearthing. There is never an end to it. Our deepest stories — our bones — are our best teachers. Gnaw it still.

Quiet the noise around you; soften its pitch. Our deepest stories are our best teachers. Let the weapons of the weak — the poison, the nagging, the gossip — burn themselves to ash; cast them to the wind.

Take back the permission to succeed; make it yours.




{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

1 heidi defaut March 30, 2016 at 10:52 am

this truth touches me deeply

2 Veronica March 30, 2016 at 10:53 am

Thank you for this, Elissa. As I write through my dissertation, sometimes it feels that the writing is not so much the product as the means by which I survive this task of trying to know something new and make it knowable. And there is shame. In my case, the anticipated shame of possible misrepresentation of my participants’ experiences or the shame of believing that I’m actually getting a PhD in the next handful of months, despite all my bad writing habits. I’ve tried to give myself permission to succeed, but didn’t realize just how much I needed to until this morning’s reading.

3 Laura March 30, 2016 at 10:58 am

Yesterday after work I was talking to my boyfriend and he suddenly said, “you should be a writer. you have the best stories. the way you tell them is mesmerizing. maybe a podcast.”
i said, who me? then i went to take a bath.
i thought to myself, all i do all day long is tell myself stories. things happen, and i tell myself a story about what just happened, and tell it to myself over and over, spinning the yarn until i have it in my head the way i like it.
then this morning i read this. it’s like a sign!!! who me, indeed. ha.
anyways, thank you for writing this. a lot to think about.

4 Indira Ganesan March 30, 2016 at 10:58 am

What a searching essay addressing what holds us back when we write. The idea of shame: how paralyzing it is to acknowledge one’s stories as worth telling, to ignore the silencing of telling secrets. This is the endless task. Somewhere Woolf said Modesty kills writers. So grateful youare writing wise, and a book is forthcoming.

5 Amber March 30, 2016 at 11:08 am

Wonderful Elissa. Just wonderful.

6 Sarah Copeland March 30, 2016 at 11:18 am

Elissa, so very beautiful and important. Thank you for sharing this, and all your words, with the world.

7 Randi March 30, 2016 at 11:30 am

This is terrific, Elissa. Just what I needed as I start to write something new that will have shadows as well as light. Thank you.

8 David Leite March 30, 2016 at 11:44 am

Wonderful, Elissa. You captured the paradox of the writer: We sit and create alone in order to tell a universal truth. Their truth, your truth, our truth. That’s what matters most. That’s what will burn the weapons of the weak. And if this this post is any indication of your book, there will be bonfires aplenty.

9 Elissa March 30, 2016 at 11:50 am

xxx, D.

10 Sharon eisen March 30, 2016 at 11:52 am

As always, a thought provoking and deeply felt essay.
Thank you for sharing.

11 Amanda March 30, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Aching heal of truth. (Thank you.)

12 Antonia Allegra March 30, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Elissa, you have come of age. The age of a writer who knows her soul and her skill. BRAVA! So glad you’ll be with us at the Symposium for Professional Food Writers in 2017! This memoir writing has brought out the guts of who you are.

13 Paul Mavis March 30, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Your words capture another, important and rarely shared dimension of the resistance many of us battle against each day at the keyboard! Thanks for this.

14 Elissa March 30, 2016 at 12:40 pm


15 Linda T. Marsh March 30, 2016 at 5:08 pm

This is as excellent an essay on writing as any I have ever read. Brava, Elissa! I can picture this in a collection of essays on writing that future writers study.

16 Paul McElveen March 30, 2016 at 6:19 pm

Elissa, Your words made me stop and think about how my words and actions affect the ones I love. Thank you.

17 Margit Van Schaick March 31, 2016 at 12:57 am

Elissa, thank you. I’ve read your essay several times, and will, I’m sure, lead me to a deeper understanding. Some time ao, during a difficult period, I made a huge change in my life by replacing shame with a healing anger, even rage. It was then that I truly began to find my self.

18 Amy Jo Lauber April 1, 2016 at 10:10 am

LOVE this! Thank you for sharing our universal thoughts so poetically.

19 valorie grace hallinan April 1, 2016 at 3:03 pm

What a deep and motivating essay about writing. Your passages about shame and not having permission to succeed spoke to me the most. Thank you for writing it!

20 Jessica April 1, 2016 at 4:59 pm

This is a fantastic piece. Thank you so much for sharing.

21 Lori Ferguson April 2, 2016 at 7:07 am

This essay resonates with me at such a bone-deep level. You turn a phrase so beautifully and hit upon so many of the fears and misgivings that anyone who dares to put pen to paper experiences. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t struggle alone….

22 Pam Parker April 2, 2016 at 8:27 am

I needed to read this today. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Sometimes shame paralyzes me on multiple levels, not just writing. The “I can’t” chants can drown out progress in so many areas of my life and then fill me with shame. (I can’t keep a clean house; I can’t finish that project, etc.) I had never thought of shame as the roadblock. So, so much to think about, to gnaw at as Dani Shapiro would say. Again, I thank you.

23 Elissa April 2, 2016 at 9:23 am

Thank you—

24 Elissa April 2, 2016 at 9:23 am


25 Elissa April 2, 2016 at 9:23 am

Thanks so much –

26 Elissa April 2, 2016 at 9:23 am

Thank you–

27 Raye April 2, 2016 at 11:59 am

David Kanigan sent a flock (I’m sure) of us over to view your expansive territory of thought. I continue to be deeply in love with his ability to transport. It is always for The Good. Thank you, Darling David.

Tomorrow. Those are your words. The Tomorrows. Thank you, as well, for the reminder to use Tomorrow wisely and with much gusto. There’s also that “get over yourself” thought just for good measure…

28 Elissa April 2, 2016 at 12:47 pm

Thank you David. 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

29 David Kanigan April 2, 2016 at 1:23 pm

Hi Elissa. Lori pointing me to your amazing post and your blog. What an inspiration. Thank you.

30 Elissa April 2, 2016 at 1:55 pm

David, I am so grateful for your kind words–I very much admire your work. Thank you–

31 Chinyere April 2, 2016 at 6:06 pm

This struck a chord for me as a travel Facebook on my day off from my soul-sucking supermarket job. I recently bought a headset to get back to writing after months away from it, since I talk faster than I write… but equipment really wasn’t ever my problem.

It is and always was shame.

Shame in comparison to my “successful” siblings. Shame compared to my novelist father who wants me to be good on one hand and belittles me with the other. Shame that I may have missed my chance when I had one. Shame that I want to explore my darkness. Shame that darkness may be all I have to explore. Shame that whatever I am, feel, and/or do may not be enough; that what talent “they” ascribed to me is now as fallow as fracked farmland.

I really needed to read this today, Ms. Altman. Thank you.

32 Lisa Tindal April 6, 2016 at 3:02 pm

“Who am I not to tell them? ”
I cherish this.
I too, compelled to read at the suggestion of David Kanigan.

33 Elissa April 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Thank you Lisa –

34 Rachel April 6, 2016 at 10:10 pm

Reading this is like crack cocaine to me (not that I’ve ever actually tried it but wow). Thank you.

35 Elissa April 6, 2016 at 10:53 pm

Thank you—

36 David April 24, 2016 at 2:49 am

Elissa, thank you. You inspire me to carry on. (Writing. I’m not suicidle)!

37 Pamela Hunter April 30, 2016 at 8:35 am

“Quiet the noise around you; soften its pitch. Our deepest stories are our best teachers. Let the weapons of the weak — the poison, the nagging, the gossip — burn themselves to ash; cast them to the wind. Take back the permission to succeed; make it yours.”

Absolutely felt this to the bone! These words are so wonderfully moving, then cutting, then healing! May I share your words with a few friends?

Thank you!

38 Adele August 30, 2016 at 6:52 am

Just the morning salve I was seeking before tethering myself to my desk. Writing is the one creative act I most long for and resist as it demands the whole of me regardless of what I am prepared to offer. Your work continues to encourage my true intent and I thank you, thank you, thank you!

39 Elissa September 22, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Thank you so much, and good luck—E.

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